There were many shocking things about former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony last week to the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. There was the alleged plate-throwing president, the doom-scrolling chief of staff, and the outlines of a plot to throw a violent coup. But what also surprised many viewers had nothing to do with the assault on democracy. It was that the witness in question is just 26 — a year and a half older than she was when she had a front row seat to America’s most dangerous presidential transition.
Her age quickly became a target for those in Donald Trump’s orbit. How could such a young and inexperienced staffer have access to so much information? The reality is that Hutchinson is far from the exception; she is the norm when it comes to how Washington works.
From Congress to the White House, young staffers essentially keep the government running: They’re the ones managing schedules, doing heavy-lifting research, and overseeing events. They pass on messages from one congressional office to another. They meet with constituents and lobbyists when their bosses are too busy. And they are often the notetakers at high-level meetings.
In short, they know a lot about what goes on, and because of that, they have a lot of power. They can leak stories to reporters if they suspect foul play, for example, but politicians trust them to respect the cone of silence. And that trust isn’t wholly irrational. It’s part of an unwritten contract.
Young staffers come to Capitol Hill with a lot of ambition — some for personal gain, some to do good in this world — and they’re willing to put up with a whole lot to realize it. They’re grossly underpaid. They work ungodly hours. And they often have to deal with abuse, whether it’s getting yelled at for forgetting to bring their boss a fork or cleaning ketchup off the wall after a tantrum sends plates flying across a room. And for the most part, these staffers keep mum. After all, doing otherwise in a place where nursing grudges is par for the course could very well end their nascent and promising careers.
That’s why while Washington is filled with potential whistle-blowers, only few ever choose to grab a whistle. But every once in a while, a young staffer like Hutchinson breaks the mold and speaks out. And when they do, the people in power start to feel their hearts slowly creep up to their throats. They may start to think about what they have said or done in front of their staffers. What emails were certain team members cc’d on? Have they been as discreet about their affair as they thought? Did they actually ask someone for a Proud Boys contact?
If you’re a young Republican staffer and you’re now all of a sudden getting vaguely nice texts from your higher-ups asking to catch up, it’s safe to say that’s probably what’s going through their minds (especially if the texts have a heavy dose of emojis.)
But Hutchinson’s testimony should be a reminder to young staffers from both parties that they have a lot of power, and they should make use of it. That doesn’t mean that they should make a habit of breaking their teams’ trust. To the contrary, for any office to function well, there needs to be some base level of mutual trust between colleagues. But in public office in particular, everyone is responsible for holding people in power accountable.
And so to all the young federal government staff, particularly those who work with or alongside the coup-inclined: Be ferocious note-keepers. Log every meeting, recount what was said, and store it all somewhere safe. In a place with so much foul play and disregard for ethics, you never know when your moment might come to be the next Cassidy Hutchinson.